Friday, March 15, 2013

Photography - conceptual (or not), rules (or not)

In a recent post about WassinkLundren's bookwork Empty Bottles, on his always interesting blog Conscientious Joerg Colberg talks about conceptual photography. Joerg says - If you’re a conceptual photographer, chances are you’ll be either ignored or misunderstood (or both) by large segments of photoland. I think this is true. Why? Perhaps it's because photographers (publishers too) opt for the easy route of making and publishing documentary work that, well, doesn't demand too much, either of them or the reader of the work. Straight documentary photographs deal with the way things are - what you see is what you get. There are generally no hidden layers in this sort of work, nothing provocative, nothing that transcends it just being a photograph.

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. Sol Levitt wrote, Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made before hand. Thus the execution of a work is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

This said, I don't believe that conceptually driven work has to be anti-aesthetic. Surely it's a question of balance where content and form work in harmony and where the artist recognizes their responsibility to opens the reader to the possibility of a sense of wonder.

It seems to me that this sort of work best comes from the whole arena of one's experience, looking at the emotional issues that drives us all - hope, love, loss, impermanence, death. These are truths that resonate beyond what you might expect from pictures of coal mines or abandoned suburbs.

Joerg Colberg also talks about rules - I do believe very strongly that any photographer needs to understand the rules of her/his medium, regardless of what they’re doing. This may well be so, however I prefer Duane Michals's take - and in not learning the rules, I was free. I always say, you're either defined by the medium or you redefine the medium in terms of your needs.

I've said this before and at the risk of being repetitive; in the end, a work of substance be it conceptually driven or of a documentary nature, has to be measured by its authenticity. 
This only comes from the artist's passion, commitment and drive to engage heart and head in the making of the work - regardless of systems, rules, dealers, markets and their mothers. It may be wishful thinking but I strongly believe that work made with authenticity, the right motivation and persistence will find a willing and accepting audience.

Both photographs by Duane Michals

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